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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Move over, Machu Picchu: There’s more to see in Peru

In an image Alvaro Gamarra provided, Elvis Lexin La Torre Uñaccori, the mayor of Machu Picchu Pueblo, the gateway village to the bucket-list destination in Peru that draws millions of visitors (and their trash) each year.

By Richard Morgan

Elvis Lexin La Torre Uñaccori knows quite well that a wonder of the world often creates a less-wondrous world of waste — he is the mayor of Machu Picchu Pueblo, the gateway village to the bucket-list destination in Peru that draws millions of visitors (and their trash) each year.

He shared this expertise in waste and waste management in February, at a two-day summit he organized about environmental and infrastructural advances at the Inca citadel. To 99 mayors and other municipal leaders from across Peru, La Torre spoke about a plastic bottle compactor, a glass bottle pulverizer and a processor his village developed for hotel and restaurant food scraps.

But the main goal of the summit was larger than recycling and food waste initiatives; it was about disseminating effective practices for sustainable tourism across Peru, part of a national desire to fast-track tourism development of lesser-known archaeological sites and their local villages. In recent years, the country has engaged in a grassroots effort to elevate its vast trove of archaeological sites that are often just as well preserved or culturally significant as Machu Picchu.

“Machu Picchu is a wonder seen by the world. We are fortunate. But there are many wonders in Peru waiting to be seen,” La Torre said.

Local leadership like that of La Torre has filled a power vacuum in Peru, which has had seven presidents since 2016 — all from different political parties. Violent protests after its last transfer of power, in December 2022, prompted a mass evacuation of tourists from Machu Picchu and a complete shutdown of the site for 21 days.

The importance of Machu Picchu and tourism overall to Peru’s economy is unquestionable. Madeleine Burns Vidaurrazaga, Peru’s vice minister of tourism, said the industry in 2019 accounted for $8.9 billion, or 3.9% of the country’s gross domestic product, and 1.5 million jobs.

Burns said the Peruvian government in 2023 raised its annual tourism budget to $100 million, about a 15% increase from $87 million last year, then dedicated an additional $144 million for tourism infrastructure, marketing, and support for artisans and businesses with fewer than 50 employees. In December, Burns plans to unveil a national campaign called “Peru al Natural” that will highlight Huascarán National Park and other “nature and adventure hot spots” and complement better-known sites like the Nazca Lines, the ancient geoglyphs etched into the coastal desert in Southern Peru.

“We have jewels but don’t know how to use them, how to discuss them, how to share them,” Burns said, adding that her tourism models are Egypt and India, both of which have expanded their tourism offerings and infrastructures beyond the Great Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.

“We have a living culture and a living history,” said Jose Koechlin, chair of Canatur, Peru’s national tourism agency. “We’re one of the cradles of civilization on the level of Egypt or Mesopotamia. But it needs un codazo suave.” A gentle nudge.

‘Challenging, but it’s exciting’

In 1975, Koechlin founded Inkaterra, an ecotourism company based in Peru that now employs 600 workers across several properties.

“We can make things happen on our own terms. It’s challenging, but it’s exciting,” Koechlin said.

One of Koechlin’s employees, Joaquín Escudero, transferred from Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu hotel, where he worked as its general manager, to become general manager at Hacienda Urubamba, its property in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco, in 2014. In 2017, he founded a tourism alliance in the region that now includes 14 local restaurants, hotels, travel agencies and a clinic. The alliance recently met with local police chiefs to strategize on safety, including the creation of special patrols and the installation of security cameras for tourists and locals alike.

Escudero has lobbied the local government for better roads and sewage treatment for the whole community. “We are not living on another planet,” he said of the travel industry in Peru. “We are in the same towns. We are neighbors. I want to feel proud of my neighborhood. Pride is the magic that changes stones into world wonders.”

For some of Peru’s Indigenous Quechua people, the movement to expand tourism is also a chance for increased visibility for their ancestors and culture.

“Peru is not only Machu Picchu. It is the home of a vast empire,” said Roger Gabriel Caviedes, a tour guide across the Cuzco region who is mestizo of Andean descent and who grew up speaking Quechua. “If tourists can see all of our story, we have an opportunity to exist in their hearts, not only their Instagrams.”

A visit to Machu Picchu has become a highly choreographed experience with specific arrival times, time-limited visits, roped-off areas and caps on daily visitors (now set at 4,044).

“It was almost like the Disneyfication of the Incas,” said Rachel Rucker-Schmidt, 48, a tourist from Dallas, of her Machu Picchu visit last summer. “It was like being back in Texas. Everyone was American, just a little less special. It was neat to see but had a different vibe. We had resigned ourselves to checking it off the list.”

Then her family went to Moray, a terraced farm site built by the Incas, where they encountered fewer than a dozen other tourists. “It was very intimate,” Rucker-Schmidt said. “We were often the only people there with locals.”

Her husband, Jason, 48, agreed. “I found it much more charming,” he said of Moray. “It wasn’t being presented to you in a perfect state. It’s maintained, but not to the same level as Machu Picchu. Everyone has the same photo from Machu Picchu.”

Moray and the eight-hour hikes the family completed through the Andean wilderness also resonated with their daughter, Trilby, 15. “It was more of a local point of view,” she said. “We were basically in Peru’s backyard.”

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